It’s the simplest thing in the world, if you’re thirsty: Walk to the sink. Turn on the tap. Pour yourself a glass of water. But what if you can’t drink the water from your tap? What if it’s contaminated? What if this basic life necessity also makes you sick?

That’s what happened when Mari Copeny was eight years old and water from the tap in her hometown of Flint, Michigan, became unsafe to drink. In the face of a budget crisis, city managers had switched the source of the town’s drinking water from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the Flint River. As they did so, levels of lead and bacteria in the public water supply rose, eventually resulting in 12 deaths and numerous Flint area children testing positive for high lead levels in their blood.

In protest, Mari and her mother began going to community demonstrations and marches. Her activism eventually earned her the nickname “Little Miss Flint.” When she wrote a letter to then-President Barack Obama about the issue, he came to Flint personally and eventually secured $100 million in aid to fix Flint’s water problem.

That experience as a girl launched Mari as a clean water activist. In February, she visited the Museum of Science + Industry-Chicago to talk about her efforts to improve the drinking water in numerous U.S. cities, including Chicago. Her talk was the first MeetHer event of 2024 at MSI.

MeetHer is part of the Girls in STEM program at the museum, which focuses on connecting school age girls with female role models in technical careers. Although women earn 56% of all university degrees awarded in the U.S., only a third of those are in STEM fields. Far fewer women than men enter and stay in technical careers, leading to significant gender imbalances in science, technology, engineering, and math around the globe. The percentages are even lower for women of color.

“Making that connection between curriculum and real life is really critical,” says Chevy Humphrey, President and CEO of MSI. “We can throw content at students, but they have to see how they can apply it in real life. That’s the piece that’s been missing—meeting women leading in these positions. Because if you can see it, you can be it. And that’s something we’re creating here at MSI.”

The Girls in STEM program was made possible by funding from Ann M. Drake, President & Chair-Lincoln Road and Chair & President-Women’s Leadership Center at Williams Bay.